Viva Riva!

Democratic Republic of the Congo (2010) Dir. Djo Munga

Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, is at the mercy of a fuel crisis. Riva (Patsha Bay) is an ambitious petty crook who returns from Angola after a ten year absence with a truck load of fuel from which he and his henpecked partner JM (Alex Herabo) plan to profit from on a huge scale. Riva however gets a big head too early and starts to celebrate before he even has the money.

It is at a club he notices the sexy red haired woman Nora (Manie Malone) and tries to make a move over her, unaware her boyfriend is the insanely possessive and violent gangster Azor (Diplome Amekindra). And if making an enemy out of Azor wasn’t enough the Angolan gang from whom Riva stole the fuel have arrived in Kinshasa and with the help of a Congolese military officer The Commander (Marlene Longange) are hunting Riva down to reclaim their goods and extract a little revenge in the process.

It’s probably fair to say that not many people are aware that there is a Congolese film industry. It also probable that many people would assume African cinema to be largely social documentaries or fairly “traditional” in its content. Viva Riva! is the film to shatter both of those preconceptions. It has all the elements of your “typical” crime thriller but its setting and “localised” take on the story makes this a fun little curiosity to behold. It might not be the greatest film to ever been made and often tries too hard but it offers the viewer a lot to invest in.

Riva at first seems like a rogue wide boy who has designs on capitalising on Kinshasa’s fuel shortage but we son learn he is also reckless, brazen, selfish, unscrupulous and thinks with his groin more than his brain. Indeed none of the characters are particularly likeable and all a hugely flawed which makes for a more interesting tale but the lack of a sympathy/empathy figure is one weak point in the plotting.

With everyone deceiving everyone else there should be at least one, the nearest candidate being Nora who tires of being under Azor’s strict but impotent thumb and rather too quickly, thinks that Riva is her ticket to salvation and happiness. Sadly the vivacious Nora only appears for the first half of the film and her glamour is missed in the bloody second half but her role as the femme fatale who starts the chain of events leading to Riva’s downfall is a pivotal one.

Hot on Riva’s tail are the Angolans Riva stole from, headed by the stylish but merciless César (Hoji Fortuna), who somehow manage to involve not just the military in his shady deals but the church too. Also thrown into the mix are the hooker Malou (Angelique Mbumb) The Commander employs to hunt Riva down, with whom she has a lesbian relationship, and a young homeless lad Anto (Jordan N’tunga) who becomes Riva’s eyes, ears and supplier of goodies.

After a steady build up in the first half which features some of the most awkward and arguably risible sex scenes, the second half of the film is flat out violence with the cast list shortening with every passing minute. César and his thugs leave nobody out of their bloody rampage while Riva and a splinter group formed by The Commander are equally unforgiving in their thirst for revenge.

Aside from the aforementioned sex scenes (and a gross scene of Nora relieving herself) this film does everything else pretty much as it should be for a crime thriller. The story twists and turns, alliances are formed and broken, people’s true colours are exposed while other have their dreams shattered as a result.

The pace is quite brisk and everything gets satisfactorily told inside its 91 minute running time – the only weak point being the exposition of the characters which is rushed though in blink-and-you-miss-them flashback scenes or voice overs. The other slight let down are the fight scenes which are very unconvincing and poorly laid out, exposing how the cast don’t know how to throw a punch or sell it.

Since this is (to the best of my knowledge) relatively uncharted territory for Congolese cinema they get a pass for any little shortcomings, making Viva Riva! a solid and enjoyable watch for fans of the crime thriller genre and a positive sign for the future of African cinema.

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